A 1918 story gets the MFA workshop treatment

For a recent MFA graduate like me, the 1918 writers’ market inspires huge envy. There were dozens of mass-circulation magazines, and all of them were full of short stories. Quality was a different matter—the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer summed up the critical consensus when he said in the January 17, 1918, issue of The Dial that the magazines offer the public “a series of pink and white heroines with perfume in their veins, endless variations of the Cinderella-Zenda romances, wax dummies with virile pretentions on their lips and riding breeches on their soul.” So I wasn’t expecting much. Most of the stories I’ve read have been pretty entertaining, though. The biggest problem is that, almost without exception, they end abruptly with a “surprise” twist that anyone could have seen coming.

The core of an MFA program is the workshop. Students read each other’s stories and—in my program, anyway—write letters commenting on them. I decided to give this treatment to one of the stories I read this month, “Between the Cat’s Paws,” by Elizabeth Jordan, which appeared in the January 1918 issue of Woman’s Home Companion.

Dear Elizabeth:

I enjoyed reading “Between the Cat’s Paws.” You did a good job of portraying the main character, Penfield “Penny” Hewett, a 23-year-old lover of “golf sticks and polo ponies,” who, to the unflattering astonishment of his friends and family, has found success as an architect. We see the increasing sense of entrapment caused by his long engagement to his college classmate Arabella, who’s a suffragist in the East and rarely writes these days. And we see how he’s torn apart by his feelings for Ruth, the sister of Ralph, his business partner and pal. I wish I’d learned more about Ruth, though, beyond that she’s an “awfully nice girl” who keeps Penny and Ralph “comfy.”

The climax of the story, when Arabella shows up in town after failing to respond to Penny’s subtle (he thinks) inquiries as to whether the engagement is still on, mostly works. I would have liked to see more of the interplay between Penny, Arabella, Ruth, and Ralph at the tea he arranges at Arabella’s insistance, and at the dinner that follows. You can’t just say that “the best in each of the four at the table came out and fused into a perfect comradeship,” we need to see this happening. The next scene, with Penny and Arabella alone in a taxi, worked better for me. I believed that Arabella, having seen through Penny’s description of Ruth as “a peach” and “the sort of girl that makes a perfect friend,” would want to check Ruth out before setting Penny free, and I smiled when, to Penny’s bemusement, she said, “Well, Penny, it’s all right. You can have her.” I didn’t believe it, though, when she said that she would have gone ahead with the marriage if she hadn’t approved of Ruth. This seems like a case of the story driving the character, rather than the other way around.

I also didn’t buy it when Arabella and Ralph fell in love. Arabella seems too sophisticated and ambitious for Ralph. And Ralph is clearly in love with Penny. You say that his eyes “usually rested on Penny with the deep, dumb devotion that shines in the eyes of a splendid collie,” and that Ralph “adored his chum and did not care who knew it.” I can imagine Arabella (who may be gay as well, given that, pre-Ralph, she was planning to devote her life to her career once she was free of Penny) forming an alliance of convenience with Ralph. But true love? I don’t think so.

Thanks for a good read, and I look forward to more of your stories.

Best,

Mary Grace

Elizabeth Jordan in 1901

Elizabeth Jordan is—like practically everyone I’ve come across in 1918—an intriguing character. In addition to being a prolific short story writer, she was a noted journalist and editor. She accepted and edited Sinclair Lewis’s first novel for the publishing house Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins), and she was the long-time editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She was a close friend of Henry James, and she convinced him to contribute a chapter to a 1908 round-robin novel called The Whole Family.

Jordan was a suffragist herself, and one of my favorite things about “Between the Cat’s Paws” is that ambitious, socially engaged Arabella isn’t a villain or figure of fun, as some writers might have made her. She’s the smartest character in the story (okay, that’s not saying a whole lot), and she pulls all the strings. As for the homoerotic subtext, this is something I’ve seen a surprising amount of, even in The Melting of Mollyespecially in The Melting of Molly. More on this subject later.

I enjoyed “Between the Cat’s Paws.” If Jordan had been free to write a story about the world as she really lived in it, though—now, that’s a story I’d like to read.

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